KABUL, Afghanistan, July 31, (Agencies): The Islamic State group targeted the Iraqi Embassy in Kabul on Monday, with a suicide bomber blowing himself up outside the gates, followed by three gunmen who stormed into the building. The assault set off a four-hour firefight that ended only after Afghan security forces said they had killed all the attackers.
Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish told reporters that two Afghan employees of the Iraq Embassy died in the attack. Three police were injured, he said.
As the attack unfolded there were conflicting reports of casualties, with a witness saying he saw bodies of at least two policemen lying on the road outside the embassy soon after the attack began.
In its claim of responsibility, the Islamic State group said its fighters had killed seven guards but the militant group often exaggerates its claims on the number of casualties inflicted. The IS attack likely meant to distract attention from the militants’ massive losses in Iraq and Syria in recent weeks.
Also, IS said only two of its followers were involved in the attack, not four as Kabul officials said, adding to the conflicting reports.
Earlier Danish said only one policeman was wounded and that there were no fatalities among the security forces or civilians. Danish told The Associated Press over the phone that all the embassy staffers were safe but that the building had suffered extensive damage with windows broken and several rooms badly burned.
It wasn’t until the attack ended that both the embassy and the interior ministry realized two of their Afghan staff had died in the daring assault.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani condemned the attack and said it was the government’s responsibility to provide protection to international missions.
In Baghdad, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad Jamal condemned the assault as a “terrorist attack”.
The attack began with a big explosion that rocked central Kabul shortly before noon, followed by gunfire that lasted for several hours, and two or three more subsequent large explosions.
Police quickly cordoned off the area, barring reporters from coming too close to the scene.
The Afghan Interior Ministry said a suicide bomber first started the attack, blowing himself up at the embassy gate, after which three attackers stormed inside.
Earlier, Afghan officials who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to the media, had said a car bomb started the assault. Later on, it became clear the suicide bomber was on foot and not driving a car.
The ministry statement said Afghan security forces quickly deployed to the scene, rescuing all the embassy diplomats and employees and taking them to safety.
While the attack was still underway, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan claimed responsibility in a statement carried by the IS-linked Aamaq news agency.
A police officer in the area, who identified himself only as Abdullah, said the gunfire was initially intense but later became more sporadic. The area was surrounded by armored vehicles and a large contingent of police and Afghan soldiers.
At least one eyewitness, a store owner who goes by the name of Hafizullah — many Afghans use only one name — said he saw the bodies of two policemen on the ground before armored personnel carriers and police arrived to cordon off the area.
More than an hour into the attack, witnesses reported hearing another powerful explosion and said they saw black smoke billowing skyward. It wasn’t immediately clear what had caused the later explosion.
“The explosion was so strong. I was so afraid,” said Maryam, a woman crying near the site of the attack said. She said she works at the nearby office of Afghanistan’s National Airline Ariana.
The Iraq Embassy is located in a part of the city known as Shahr-e-Now, which lies outside the so-called “green zone” where most foreign embassies and diplomatic missions are located and which is heavily fortified with a phalanx of guards and giant cement blast walls.
By comparison, the Iraqi Embassy is located on a small street in a neighborhood dominated by markets and businesses.
After Iraqi forces, backed by a US-led coalition, recaptured the city of Mosul from the Islamic State group earlier in July, the Iraq Embassy had called reporters to its offices in Kabul to express concerns that the local IS affiliate might stage large-scale attacks elsewhere to draw away attention from the militant group’s losses in Iraq.
The Iraqi embassy is located in northwestern Kabul, in a neighbourhood that is home to several hotels and banks as well as large supermarkets and several police compounds.
“I heard a big blast followed by several explosions and small gunfire,” said Ahmad Ali, a nearby shopkeeper.
“People were worried and closed their shops to run for safety. The roads are still blocked by security forces.”
The attack is the latest to rock Kabul, which is regularly devastated by bomb blasts and militant assaults, often killing many civilians.
The resurgent Taleban claim many of the attacks as they step up their bid to drive out foreign forces with a series of assaults across the country.
But the Islamic State group, recently ousted from the Iraqi city of Mosul, have been expanding their footprint in eastern Afghanistan and have claimed responsibility for several devastating attacks in Kabul.
First emerging in 2015, the group’s local affiliate Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K), overran large parts of eastern Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, near the Pakistan border, where they engaged in a turf war with the Taleban.
US forces in Afghanistan have repeatedly targeted the group, killing its head Abu Sayed and several senior advisers in a July 11 strike in Kunar, the Pentagon has said.
The decision to deploy the so-called Mother Of All Bombs (MOAB) also targeted IS hideouts in Nangarhar, according to the Afghan defence ministry, though fighting in the area has continued.
Pentagon officials say the group now numbers fewer than 1,000 in Afghanistan.
“We will be relentless in our campaign against ISIS-K. There are no safe havens in Afghanistan,” said General John Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, in a statement Sunday confirming some of the deaths in the July 11 strike.
The group is believed to be on the back foot in the Middle East, where analysts have said it has lost more than 60 percent of its territory and 80 percent of its revenue, three years after declaring its self-styled “caliphate” across swathes of Iraq and Syria.
But analysts said Monday’s attack in Kabul would be seen as a warning to Baghdad after it pushed IS out of Mosul.
“(IS) wants to send a message to many states, not just to Iraq, to prove that it is present everywhere … particularly after the victories of the Iraqi security forces in Mosul,” said Issam al-Fili,a professor of Political Sciences at the Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad.
“Attacking embassies is part of the strategy of this kind of group, because embassies represent a strong symbol for the affected states,” he said, adding that the attack would not have come as a “surprise” to Baghdad.